Context is key. This little truth nugget applies to many areas of life.
Trying to discern what to wear on a Saturday afternoon? You'll benefit from context considerations. The environment of an outdoor college football game will call for different garb than an indoor gymnastics meet.
Pondering what movie to take your grandson to this Saturday? Context will be an important part of the decision. Is there a particular genre he likes? How old is he?
Many of the decisions we make each day are based on our ability to consider our broader surroundings, and that's called context.
The importance of context also applies to the reading of scripture. There are certainly occasions when it is enjoyable to select a single Bible verse and read it. It can be like consuming a delicious appetizer. There are also many occasions when it is healthy to read the verses and chapters surrounding that one individual verse; it's a chance to ingest the full entree. To glean the most from the "Good Book," there is ample worth in exploring the broader context in which passages were composed.
I met my pal Emily during freshman year at Wartburg College (common name alert — there were 26 Emilys at Wartburg while I was a student there). Emily and I lived on the same floor of Centennial Hall. We also took a class together called Inquiry Studies 101. It came time for our first big project, and Emily and I got to be partners. The project was to share about a hero of our choosing. Emily suggested we opt for the Apostle Paul as our hero.
"Great idea!" I remember saying in the hallway outside our dorm rooms. Emily said, "His life was completely transformed. He went from being Saul to being Paul. It will be cool to share about his conversion experience." I nodded eagerly as if I had a clue what she was talking about.
A wee little confession: At that point, I remembered nearly nothing about the Apostle Paul. I had gone through confirmation in seventh and eighth grades, and by 18, I hadn't retained much. I headed back to my dorm room to brush up on Paul using the Bible I'd received for Confirmation. I vaguely remembered that he was responsible for writing some of the New Testament, so I flipped around back there. I saw his name mentioned. He was obviously very adept at giving advice. He wrote entire letters of guidance. But I still didn't understand what made him so cool. I didn't understand the context of Paul's life story.
It came to start work on the project, and I still didn't grasp why Paul was hero-worthy. We sat on the floor of Emily's dorm room with poster board and Bibles. "So what do you think we should focus on?" Emily asked. "Well," I said, "do you think we could just review some of his life highlights? I can't seem to remember them."
So we read from the book of Acts, and the story of Paul's life and conversion experience came to life (read Acts, Chapters 8-9 for the overview). That day we didn't just read a verse here or there. We read chapters at a time. Suddenly I understood what made Paul's story so unique. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming a significant leader of the early church.
By sharing with me where in the Bible to find the larger context of Paul's life, Emily provided the meat on the bones to his story. The project came together a-OK. But my true takeaway was the recognition that within the Bible there were all these deeper stories, and that every person in scripture lived within a larger context.
It would take many more years to realize I wanted to be a pastor, but I already felt a nudge that the Bible was a book I'd never get sick of exploring.
Regardless of what part of the Bible you're reading, it's always worthwhile to consider the context in which it was created. It's helpful to know about the cultural and political history. Study Bibles are great tools. Group Bible studies are great options, too.
The Holy Spirit comes into our lives through the pages of the Bible. It is my prayer that no matter what your biblical background or comfort level, you feel inspired to incorporate scripture into your life. Remember, expertise is not required in this endeavor. Bible reading is a lifelong adventure, and it's never too late to begin.